Har­ris keeps his eye on D.C.

Con­gress­man of­ten at odds with District’s lo­cal gov­ern­ment

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By John Fritze

WASHINGTON – David Trum­ble has never heard of Rep. Andy Har­ris. But his com­mu­nity has nev­er­the­less felt the in­flu­ence of the Mary­land con­gress­man.

That's be­cause Trum­ble lives in the District of Columbia, a fa­mil­iar tar­get for con­gres­sional in­ter­ven­tion. While the na­tion's cap­i­tal is — at its clos­est — an hour's drive from Har­ris's mostly ru­ral district, the Bal­ti­more County Repub­li­can has become a lead­ing con­ser­va­tive voice in Congress on the District.

Har­ris, a Johns Hop­kins-trained anes­the­si­ol­o­gist, has warred with District lead­ers over mar­i­juana le­gal­iza­tion. He has spear­headed an ef­fort to roll back the District’s as­sist­ed­sui­cide law. More re­cently he at­tempted to up­end a city law dic­tat­ing which types of wet wipes — as in, moist toi­let pa­per — may be la­beled “flush­able.”

None of it sits well with Trum­ble, 66, a Wash­ing­to­nian for four decades who lives in the city’s H Street Cor­ri­dor.

"How can he make laws for us?" he asked. "He's not rep­re­sent­ing us. We didn't vote for


The District of Columbia Home Rule Act, signed by Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon in 1973, gave Washington an elected mayor for the first time in a cen­tury. But that didn’t stop Congress from in­volv­ing it­self in District af­fairs, from gun reg­u­la­tions to abor­tions.

Many of those clashes have been fought bit­terly year af­ter year.

Har­ris, a for­mer state law­maker who was elected to the House in 2010, says he is ful­fill­ing Congress’s con­sti­tu­tional obli­ga­tion to over­see the District. As a mem­ber of the House Ap­pro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee, Har­ris votes on hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars for the city each year. Once the checks are signed, he says, Congress has a re­spon­si­bil­ity to main­tain over­sight.

“We are the gov­ern­ing body of the District,” Har­ris said. “I’m fully com­fort­able with help­ing Congress ful­fill that man­date.”

Law­mak­ers on Capi­tol Hill have long had the power to in­flu­ence District gov­er­nance, and Congress has the author­ity to re­view and, when it wants, quash acts ap­proved by the District Coun­cil. That struc­ture was em­braced by the Found­ing Fathers, who cre­ated a dis­tinct district for the cap­i­tal from land in Mary­land and Vir­ginia to en­sure that the na­tional gov­ern­ment would op­er­ate free from the in­flu­ence of any state.

But the re­sults of that sys­tem of­ten rub the District’s over­whelm­ingly Demo­cratic of­fi­cials as po­lit­i­cal: Repub­li­cans from ru­ral parts of the coun­try es­tab­lish­ing poli­cies for a city that are pop­u­lar mostly with their own con­ser­va­tive con­stituents back home. Amid a rise in heroin use across the coun­try, for in­stance, the Repub­li­can-led Congress pro­hibits the District from us­ing fed­eral money for nee­dle ex­change pro­grams.

An ap­pro­pri­a­tions bill ap­proved by the House on Thurs­day, mean­while, con­tin­ues a long­stand­ing ban on the District us­ing lo­cal tax­payer money to cover abor­tions through the fed­eral Med­i­caid pro­gram.

It is in that con­text that Har­ris — whose con­gres­sional district in­cludes Bal­ti­more and Har­ford coun­ties as well as the East­ern Shore — has emerged as what ad­vo­cates for D.C. state­hood de­scribe as one of the most en­gaged mem­bers on the District of Columbia.

“He seems to spend as much time on the District as I do,” quipped Del. Eleanor Holmes Nor­ton, the Demo­crat who serves as the District’s non­vot­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tive in Congress.

Har­ris re­sponds that he’s just do­ing his job.

“She should read the Con­sti­tu­tion,” Har­ris said.

Har­ris drew con­sid­er­able at­ten­tion to him­self in 2014 when he tucked lan­guage into fed­eral fund­ing leg­is­la­tion that pro­hib­ited the District from spend­ing money to en­act a mar­i­juana le­gal­iza­tion ini­tia­tive ap­proved by its vot­ers ear­lier that year.

Lo­cal of­fi­cials ar­gued that the mea­sure was en­acted when the re­sults of the ref­er­en­dum were cer­ti­fied and that Congress ar­rived with its pro­hi­bi­tion too late.

Har­ris and other Repub­li­cans said at the time that Mayor Muriel Bowser could face jail time for im­ple­ment­ing the law. She hasn’t.

Congress has con­tin­ued to write the re­stric­tion — now known as the “Har­ris amend­ment” — into its spend­ing mea­sures, in­clud­ing the House-passed ver­sion of leg­is­la­tion to fund the fed­eral gov­ern­ment af­ter De­cem­ber. While pos­ses­sion of recre­ational mar­i­juana is le­gal in the District, the fed­eral mea­sure has pre­vented of­fi­cials from reg­u­lat­ing its sale.

That has made Har­ris “pub­lic en­emy No. 1,” said Adam Eidinger, an ar­chi­tect of the ini­tia­tive le­gal­iz­ing pot here.

But Har­ris has never shied from the de­bate over mar­i­juana, which he ar­gues is a dan­ger­ous gate­way drug. And it hasn’t cost him po­lit­i­cally. Last year a for­mer state law­maker chal­lenged Har­ris in the Repub­li­can pri­mary with a lib­er­tar­ian cam­paign that fo­cused in part on Har­ris’s op­po­si­tion to mar­i­juana.

Har­ris won the pri­mary with nearly 80 per­cent of the vote.

Per­haps the most sur­pris­ing ef­fort Har­ris led on the District was his move last month to re­verse a law ap­proved by the coun­cil that re­quires the man­u­fac­tur­ers of wet wipes to meet cer­tain stan­dards be­fore they may la­bel their prod­uct as “flush­able.”

Sup­port­ers of the law said it was a re­sponse to sewer clogs caused by wipes that do not eas­ily de­grade.

Har­ris and in­dus­try of­fi­cials saw a de facto ban on the prod­ucts, and ar­gued it would limit cus­tomers’ choice and ul­ti­mately ex­ac­er­bate sewer clogs.

And so the con­gress­man pro­posed an amend­ment to an ap­pro­pri­a­tions bill in July to re­peal the District’s law — but then with­drew it be­fore the leg­is­la­tion made it out of com­mit­tee.

“The prob­lem is they don’t re­ally de­fine what flush­able is,” Har­ris told his col­leagues dur­ing a com­mit­tee meet­ing over the sum­mer. “If we ban flush­able wipes, ev­ery­body’s go­ing to flush non-flush­able wipes. That’s the real prob­lem.”

Har­ris said his amend­ment was aimed at nudg­ing the District to ap­prove clearer reg­u­la­tions so man­u­fac­tur­ers would know what was ex­pected of them.

Asked why he took on an is­sue of seem­ingly hy­per-lo­cal con­cern to the District, Har­ris said that Kim­berly-Clark Corp., one of the na­tion’s largest man­u­fac­tur­ers of the wipes, has a ma­jor man­u­fac­tur­ing fa­cil­ity in Ch­ester, Pa., about 30 miles from his district.

A spokesman for Kim­berly-Clark con­firmed that the Texas-based com­pany raised con­cerns with Har­ris and other mem­bers of Congress when the D.C. law was ap­proved.

“A law lim­it­ing con­sumer ac­cess to wipes de­signed to be flushed will likely worsen the D.C. sewer sys­tem’s is­sues as con­sumers, ac­cus­tomed to toi­let­ing wipes, mi­grate to baby wipes and other non-flush­able wipes,” spokesman Bob Brand said.

For now, though, Har­ris’ ef­fort on the wipes is on hold.

The con­gress­man also led a cam­paign this sum­mer to re­peal the District’s as­sisted-sui­cide law — weigh­ing into a de­bate that played out for more than a year and prompted highly emo­tional re­sponses from both sides. The coun­cil voted 11-2 late last year to ap­prove the law.

Bowser signed the mea­sure in De­cem­ber, and the District joined six states that al­low ter­mi­nally ill pa­tients to end their lives. The law per­mits doc­tors to pre­scribe a lethal med­i­ca­tion to pa­tients who have less than six months to live.

Har­ris, a de­vout Catholic, has ques­tioned the safe­guards in the mea­sure, call­ing the law “re­ally bad pol­icy.” As with other po­lices, he in­cluded lan­guage in an ap­pro­pri­a­tions bill this year to pro­hibit the District from spend­ing any money to im­ple­ment it.

The fate of the un­der­ly­ing leg­is­la­tion won’t be clear un­til later this year, un­der­scor­ing a weak­ness in us­ing ap­pro­pri­a­tions mea­sures to in­flu­ence any­thing. Con­gres­sional lead­ers of­ten ig­nore pol­icy rid­ers in­cluded in ap­pro­pri­a­tions bills if they wind up fund­ing the gov­ern­ment through an 11th-hour, bi­par­ti­san agree­ment.

Op­po­nents of the law, in­clud­ing sev­eral dis­abil­ity rights groups, say some pa­tients could make the de­ci­sion in a state of de­pres­sion or with­out fully un­der­stand­ing their op­tions. Worse, they fear, some could be co­erced into the de­ci­sion.

“You’re go­ing through the worst that you could in that par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tion,” said J.J. Han­son, pres­i­dent of Pa­tients Rights Ac­tion Fund. The ad­vo­cacy group fights le­gal­iza­tion of physi­cian-as­sisted sui­cide.

Han­son was di­ag­nosed with brain can­cer in 2014. Af­ter doc­tors told him his prog­no­sis was bleak, he said, he con­sid­ered “ending this now.” In­stead, he iden­ti­fied a doc­tor who per­formed surgery, and that has al­lowed him to man­age the can­cer.

“I could see the dan­ger,” Han­son said. “If I had had those as­sisted-sui­cide pills and they were just sit­ting there, I could have just ended it.”

Those on the other side say such a per­sonal de­ci­sion should be made by the pa­tient, not Congress.

“I think it’s be­tween the fam­ily and per­son who’s dy­ing and their doc­tor,” said Jane Wells, a 60-year-old District res­i­dent. “If peo­ple want this for their loved ones, they should be al­lowed to have it.”

Andy Har­ris


Har­ris in­tro­duced lan­guage pro­hibit­ing the District from spend­ing money to en­act a mar­i­juana le­gal­iza­tion ini­tia­tive.


Rep. Andy Har­ris says he is ful­fill­ing Congress’s con­sti­tu­tional obli­ga­tion to over­see the District.


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